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Recognition and Appreciation to Deliver Employee Engagement, Productivity, and Compassion

Recognition and Appreciation to Deliver Employee Engagement, Productivity, and Compassion

By Aaron Mitchell Finegold
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November 2023

The first part of the twenty-first century can be characterized as a worldwide realization that employee engagement and employee experience are mission-critical elements to an organization’s strategy. “Human capital” is now seen as a strategic asset vs. a commoditized resource to be exploited. The University of Warwick, for example, found that happiness and satisfaction makes employees 12% more productive, able to achieve more and drive greater impact for the organization.

Creating a Positive Work Environment

Despite this well understood dynamic, many managers struggle with the discomfort or friction inherent in pushing for accountability and results. Harvard Business Review reports that 44% of managers find giving development feedback stressful or difficult. In another survey conducted by Zenger and Folkman, however, it was proved that 92% of respondents felt that negative feedback, if delivered appropriately, was effective at improving performance.

Believe it or not, this applies to the C-suite as well. This is where the crucial difference between recognition and appreciation comes in (credit to Mike Robbins, author of We’re All In This Together: Creating a Team Culture of High Performance, Trust, and Belonging, for the concept).

Recognition: open communication, transparency, and celebration

Let’s start with recognition, a slightly more straightforward concept. Recognition is the public and private acknowledgement of employee contributions. This acknowledgement is directly tied to business impact generated by an individual or team and should, in theory, ladder up to either bigger objectives as part of the company’s strategy or the company’s overarching vision and mission.

Appreciation: fostering a positive and inclusive culture

Now let’s move to appreciation. Appreciation is distinct from recognition because it is always-on and is shown to employees independent of their performance in the job. It can be thought of as the psychological safety “safety net” that allows for risk-taking, vulnerability, and self-critique. At the heart of appreciation is a culture that cares about our colleagues as individuals and strives to make sure that an individual’s self-worth is not strictly tied to their achievements and the company’s bottom line.

In an example from Robbins, a team who completely fails to meet a goal should not be showered with recognition. While this may seem obvious, some managers who haven’t yet mastered the distinction between recognition and appreciation will dial up the recognition in order to help mitigate that team’s negative feelings. Other managers in this situation might stay silent out of fear that they’ll say the wrong thing. Moments of vulnerability like these, however, are when appreciation is most appropriate.

A Path to Fair Recognition: Establishing Clear Goals and Expectations

Effective recognition hinges on the fair and objective application of performance metrics and organizational goals. These performance metrics and organizational objectives not only help employees not only understand their roles and the connection between their work and the company’s overarching vision and mission, but it also creates an objective, often quantifiable framework for recognition. This framework helps ensure that fallible, human judgment doesn’t get in the way of recognizing those who are most deserving.

Setting clear performance metrics

Setting performance metrics is a blend of art and science. Usually objectives are established at the senior-most levels of the organization while various teams then figure out how their skills, expertise, and scopes can help contribute to the realization of those objectives. It’s not always clear what the benchmark or target for a given metric should be: for example, Do we want sales to increase by 20% this year because it did so last year? Where do macro headwinds or tailwinds come into play? Top down and bottom up approaches can be triangulated to identify the most reasonable targets.

Communicating organizational goals

Organizations following best practices will communicate goals at the company, department and team level to ensure alignment and full understanding of what needs to be done. Employees feel more empowered and better able to make progress quickly when they understand the relationship between the task at hand and the company’s overarching goal.

Interestingly, MIT Sloan Management Review found that in many cases, a company’s senior-most leaders haven’t internalized or fully understood the company’s strategy.

Encouraging Collaboration and Teamwork

Collaboration across an enterprise is universally acknowledged as desirable, but so often real barriers arise that prevent this from happening. One such barrier is the equally revered idea of prioritization.

Let’s say Team A is trying to work on something and wants Team B to collaborate. In this case, collaboration could mean engagement as tangential as providing input, or something as profound as co-developing a new solution. Either way, Team B might (justifiably say), we have our priorities defined and, this quarter, what Team A is asking for just doesn’t fit. What should the various teams do?

Promoting cross-functional collaboration

Leaving Team A feeling disengaged and undervalued by Team B, where their work seemingly deemed less important, doesn’t have to result in an inevitable stalemate. Instead, let’s rethink “escalation” not as a negative term but as a constructive approach. It allows a senior leader, equipped with valuable insights, experience, and a clear perspective on both teams, to assess whether Team A’s project holds sufficient significance for overall business success, warranting a reconsideration of Team B’s priorities.

Emphasizing diversity and innovation

One important reality that’s worth considering is that the leader of Team B might have a biased view of the world based on that individual’s experience, exposure, assumptions, etc. Collaboration with teams in other departments isn’t free, the time spent on said collaboration is a real cost and needs to be carefully evaluated. But the mind-opening power of forced interaction with different perspectives (and the innovation it inspires) will materialize at a much slower rate if every team in an organization stays myopically focused on its biggest priorities.

What Does Appreciation Look Like: Providing Growth Opportunities and Prioritizing Work-Life Balance

Appreciation within an organization takes shape through two vital aspects:

Unbiased Access to Growth Opportunities:

Offering growth opportunities, including training programs, mentorship initiatives, employee resource groups, and educational resources, should be a universal right for all employees, irrespective of their individual performance or contributions. These programs not only serve as incentives but also as a commitment to nurturing every employee’s potential.

Prioritizing Work-Life Balance at All Levels:

One often neglected aspect of appreciation is addressing work-life balance, especially at the executive level. This practice is fundamental as it ensures the well-being and engagement of employees. By empowering leaders to champion safe, flexible, and inclusive work environments, organizations can create the conditions for all employees to thrive. Strategies like offering flexible work arrangements and implementing wellness initiatives underscore the commitment to this essential aspect of employee appreciation.

By embracing these principles, organizations can truly appreciate their workforce, fostering a culture where every individual feels valued, supported, and empowered to perform at their best.

The Lasting Impact of Employee Engagement on Company Performance

Recognition and appreciation of employees are paramount in fostering a positive work environment, enhancing employee engagement, productivity, and compassion within an organization.

This holistic approach to recognizing and appreciating employees not only drives organizational success but also nurtures a culture of trust, belonging, and continuous improvement. By embracing these principles, organizations can navigate the challenges of the modern workplace while nurturing the human capital that propels them toward their strategic goals.

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